Scaling and Streamlining Solar Business Growth
Scaling and Streamlining Solar Business Growth
Since Borrego Solar does not use in-house labor to install PV systems—its business model is to use subcontractors—it can be challenging for the company to realize labor cost savings associated with...
Inovateus Solar takes inspiration from nature and music for some of its organizational and operational structures. The company’s efforts to promote PEACE—passion, engagement, ambition, creativity and...
Namasté Solar’s employee ownership model creates an incentive to hire the right staff and set them up for success and eventual promotion. In addition to offering on-the-job training, the company has...
Cultivating and maintaining a culture of safety is part of what allows Namasté Solar to scale efficiently as it adds new employees
As a Certified B Corp with a commitment to socially responsible business practices, ReVision Energy shares the values of many of its customers, such as Throwback Brewery (shown below), a woman-owned...
Inside this Article
While the US solar industry fielded systems at an unprecedented rate of 1 MW every 32 minutes in Q3 2016, SEIA and GTM Research will undoubtedly announce a new record pace for Q4. At the same time, average system prices are falling quarter-over-quarter and year-over-year. These data suggest that profitable solar installation companies are continually finding ways to work more efficiently and effectively. We asked business operations experts at four successful solar companies to share their strategies for working smarter rather than harder.
Lean Management Systems Address Need for Speed
By Chris Anderson, Borrego Solar
Borrego Solar is an EPC firm with operations in California, Massachusetts and New York that focuses on commercial and utility applications. The company added O&M services in 2015 and an energy storage division the following year. Since co-founding Borrego Solar in 2003, Chris Anderson has served in a variety of operations, engineering and executive leadership roles. As senior vice president, he works to drive down operational costs without sacrificing quality.
Borrego Solar is one of the oldest solar installers in the country and prides itself on responsible, sustained growth. The ever-changing market dynamics that define the solar industry, which industry insiders refer to as the solar coaster, make it challenging to achieve sustained growth on both a company and a market level. However, 2016 marked Borrego’s eighth consecutive year of profitable growth.
Shifting regulations are the largest hindrance to solar business growth, as they can quickly change project economics or create market gaps while programs transition from one regulatory structure to the next. While this reality is not ideal, management- and operations-level improvements have allowed us to maintain profitability, even when faced with declining incentives. We also work hard to identify new business opportunities and value streams. A recent example is the rise of virtual net energy metering (VNEM) and community ownership models, which are driving solar adoption in a massive way in some key markets.
Incentive Program Challenges
Utility incentives, tariff structures and policies—most notably, net energy metering—have been instrumental in the growth of the solar industry. But it is challenging for solar EPCs and developers to navigate and track program changes, incentive declines and policy differences from state to state and utility to utility. When administrators change incentive programs or regulators change tariffs, it is akin to a referee moving the goalposts.
Borrego Solar has successfully navigated changing market conditions by focusing on the projects furthest along in our pipeline, taking a disciplined approach to the projects that we aggressively invest in, and understanding how investors can best monetize incentives. We are also always adapting to the environment. Our development team might be pursuing 6 MW ground mounts one year and 650 kW midscale utility projects the next. Then it might move on to commercial rooftops, municipal landfills or school carports before cycling back to large-scale ground mounts.
Gaps between incentive programs affect both the front and the back end of the project cycle. Once a program goes live, there is typically a rush to secure the incentive funds or project capacity in the interconnection queue. On the back end, there is invariably pressure to achieve mechanical completion or obtain formal permission to operate prior to a certain deadline.
Arguably, declining incentives are a good thing because these force us to look for more cost-effective ways to deploy PV systems. However, this also means that everyone is rushing to get as many projects installed as possible prior to the program deadline. This tends to increase the risk for error and raises safety concerns. As deadlines approach, greater competition for engineering or construction resources means that the industry suffers from a shortfall of experienced companies to do the work, which increases prices from those companies that can execute. Partially completed projects often need reworking later, which is not an ideal workflow.
To navigate the regulatory environment in each market separately while working to scale the business, we’ve turned to the lean management approach and 4DX principles outlined in the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling. Specifically, we’ve incorporated the lean management method of value stream mapping (VSM) to define our current state and design a future state for the process of moving from site identification to closeout with the various customers.
VSM has proven critical in aligning our staff on the project flow, key milestones, process and lead times required to bring a project to fruition. The maps enable our company leadership and frontline execution teams to more efficiently discuss the strategic direction of projects, as well as to identify the real problems we need to solve to move projects forward quickly. We create maps for greenfield development, on-site power purchase agreements and on-site EPC projects, and then overlay the associated critical IT tools and high-level authority matrixes.
In addition to utilizing VSM, we’ve implemented parts of the A3 problem-solving process, which seeks to identify, frame and act on problems. Our managers and executives participate in an annual strategic planning process to clearly identify the most pressing initiatives for the coming year. We use the A3 process to better understand the problems associated with each initiative and to communicate both the current state and the desired future state of initiatives to stakeholders. Since many employees are not experienced in lean-management principles, we also train our managers to coach rather than participate as player coaches.
The four disciplines of execution that make up the 4DX system include focusing on a wildly important goal, acting on lead measures, keeping a compelling scorecard and creating a cadence of accountability. These 4DX management principles have helped us apply countermeasures and execute on identified goals. They provide a team-approach structure that we can use to implement changes identified during our A3 problem-solving sessions.
Managing our portfolio and target markets in response to incentive changes is a major focus for our development team. Therefore, we need to provide our developers with a clear path for advancing projects internally. The process blocks in our value-stream maps provide this structure, which incorporates key “go or no-go” reviews. As a project matures, our finance, engineering, operations and, eventually, contracts committees review it. This disciplined approach is how we make timely decisions about where to invest resources.
Borrego Solar is not a manufacturer. We need to source modules, inverters, racking, combiner boxes and data-acquisition system equipment for our projects. We use a cross-departmental product approval process to expand our product mix over time. This process allows us to sort through commercially available products and identify those that fill a gap in our offerings, address a changing code requirement or provide a better value for our customers while meeting our standards for quality. As part of this process, our engineering and operation teams work closely with our partners and prospective vendors to highlight and push for value-added features within these products.
To combat an increased risk of error on the project level in both design and execution, we have created and implemented design standards, a design review process and an engineering site inspection process. We have also identified our preferred set of design applications. Design and applications engineers use these standards and guidelines to quickly develop and iterate designs, while controlling and maintaining high standards for quality set by our professional engineers.
Several software platforms are key to our operational improvements. HelioScope (helioscope.com) allows us to quickly generate preliminary production models and designs. We use Helios 3D (helios3d.com) in conjunction with other CAD software to develop our plan sets. PVsyst (pvsyst.com) generates our final production models. Bluebeam (bluebeam.com) supports our design review collaborations. We use Smartsheet (smartsheet.com) to coordinate the release of plan sets, schedule design reviews or site inspections, and otherwise manage collaborations and workflow. Over time, we have set up and refined internal procedures and standards around these software tools.
Standardizing our designs and the tools we use has also been beneficial for our outside partners. When we need to use third-party engineering services, we can control for quality and ensure that there aren’t disparities between in-house and third-party designs. This allows us to scale when demand swells. Given the dynamic nature of project schedules, we want to keep everyone’s schedule aligned. Therefore, we are starting to use Smartsheet to share our project schedules with subcontractors in real time. Our investors also appreciate that our design and production modeling process is transparent and consistent, as this gives them confidence in their projected returns.
One issue we have found with our model of acting as the EPC firm and hiring subcontractors is a lag in incorporating labor savings into bids. Manufacturers are value-engineering their products to reduce the overall installed cost. In some cases, this means they add features that reduce field labor by speeding up installation. Despite these changes, and our value-engineering efforts in design, we find that most electrical subcontractors rely heavily on past performance when bidding and use dollars per watt as the metric for measuring their bid. We have had some success reducing field labor costs by taking time to meet with prospective estimators, foremen and project managers as part of the subcontractor bid process. We let these stakeholders review our designs, call out product changes and discuss revised design standards; we also point out certain installation items that might scale based on dollars per module rather than dollars per watt.
In some cases, we have tried shifting work from electrical subcontractors to our racking vendors to capture potential savings associated with new products. Where labor rules allow nonelectricians to build mounting systems and hang modules, racking vendors can provide their own crews and laborers to perform this work. Where the rules require electricians, racking vendors can take on the task of hiring electrical subcontractors to perform the work and meet the predicted installation timelines. In some cases, racking manufacturers have had success installing their own products per our contractual expectations. In other cases, they have significantly underestimated the difficulty of the work, and we have had to rely on our master subcontract agreement to insulate us from their cost overruns.
VNEM and Community Solar
The advent of virtual or remote net metering and community solar is a welcome contrast to declining incentives. These programs allow us to optimize projects, host customers and owners by siting projects in locations that result in the most favorable rates and overall economics. It requires many different skill sets to identify host sites and off-takers, to understand and communicate the value proposition, and to negotiate terms.
To address the challenge of working with three different customers—project owner, host and off-taker—we have compartmentalized who takes the lead in each of the transactions. For example, some project developers exclusively look for sites, while others look for off-takers. As our team has gained experience and we have refined our processes, our project developers have become proficient in handling these three customers and their associated transactions. We have also established a vetted group of affiliates and partners who bring us sites and off-takers.
Since working through EPC and O&M contracts is a significant legal investment, we have focused on building out the relevant teams to strengthen relationships and foster expertise. Our project finance group manages relationships with the investment community and negotiates the EPC and O&M contracts. Our finance group focuses on the owners to understand the way they model project risk and returns, as well as establishes the personal relationships it sometimes takes to get deals done. Meeting our contract obligations and delivering a quality product allows us to leverage that investment and transact again with the same buyer.
As we move forward in 2017 and continue to scale our business, we are continuing to analyze our performance, modify our value stream maps and find ways to reduce costs. In our development work, we are identifying areas where we can obtain site discovery without running a considerable risk of overspending. In engineering, we are working to reduce our process and lead times for generating plan sets. In operations, we are trying out a model with some of our trusted electrical subcontractors in which we award the project early and work collaboratively to incorporate their constructability feedback into our design. Our hope is to design easier-to-build systems and reduce the contingencies that our subcontractors carry in their bids by folding them into the planning process. Across the organization, we are focused on driving down our cost per first-year megawatt hour.
While our maps, processes and software provide a foundation for our business and help us quickly meet changing market dynamics, these systems remain works in progress. At the end of the day, it is people who apply these tools and principles. We are successful because our employees strive to meet policy-driven deadlines, improve continuously, deliver a quality product and accelerate the adoption of renewable energy.
Biomimicry and Meeting Rhythms Promote PEACE
By T.J. Kanczuzewski, Inovateus Solar
Inovateus Solar has become one of the leading solar development, design, engineering, procurement, construction and supply companies in the Midwest. Headquartered in South Bend, Indiana, the company has developed and built solar projects for utility, rural electric cooperative, commercial, industrial, governmental, educational and microgrid customers in the US, the Caribbean and Latin America. A founding staff member of the company, T.J. Kanczuzewski has been with Inovateus Solar since 2007 and serves as its president.
Like many solar companies, Inovateus has experienced remarkable growth over the last few years. We have recently completed or are close to completing more than 100 MW of commercial and utility projects, have become the part owner of a solar power plant that we helped develop and build, and have seen our supply and distribution business flourish. However, along with experiencing rapid growth, we’ve learned some hard lessons about managing our increasing responsibilities while properly serving our customers and remaining profitable.
To accomplish what we have recently achieved and successfully meet our ambitious goal of becoming a leading national developer, we have had to change our organizational and operational structures. As a people-first workplace that is adding new as well as veteran solar industry staff, we face the challenge of maintaining our friendly corporate culture while adapting our company to competitive new market realities.
By continually looking to improve our organization, we are not only more effective but also more cooperative and focused on our day-to-day goals for building projects as well as our long-term goals of sustainably and profitably expanding our business during the ups and downs of the solar coaster. A variety of sources have inspired or led to the development of the following business management tactics. These include lessons that we have adapted from invited speakers at our weekly solar “think tank” sessions, books that I have read, examples from the natural world, and seminars that I and other team members have attended.
Truly Believing Our Core Values
Inovateus has won two “Best Place to Work” awards in Indiana, and one of the reasons we’ve earned these honors is that our team truly believes in our core values. Having everyone remember those values and act in alignment with them keeps us all focused on the long term when short-term problems get in the way.
We like to use acronyms at Inovateus. First, there’s PEACE, which stands for passion, engagement, ambition, creativity and esprit de corps. We’ve also adopted a rallying cry: building a brilliant tomorrow. These company mantras are not just something we pay lip service to—we live them. They’re truly a part of our business mindset with customers and within our internal Inovateus culture.
For example, in 2015 we landed our first large-scale contracts, including a 58 MW project, currently in its final construction phases, in Lapeer, Michigan. We had a successful sales-centric operation, but feedback from some customers and our own staff informed us that we could make our processes more efficient. We realized that we needed to create structures that largely did away with departmental silos and to implement an organizational plan that encouraged participation and greased the wheels of internal communication. And, importantly, we had to tighten up our execution.
Because our team members believe in PEACE, it was a lot easier for us to step back and avoid pointing fingers. Instead, we focused on fresh ideas to increase cooperation and efficiency.
One of the things we’ve done is create what we call PODs for each project. These are unified, inclusive cross-disciplinary teams. Our inspiration for PODs came from diverse sources. For one, we applied a feature from the natural world, namely how dolphins and other wild creatures live and work together (hence the name). We also borrowed ideas from retired US Army General Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams and his experience with breaking down operational structure gaps in the military and making groups “faster, flatter and more flexible.” In a sense, the POD is our biomimicry-influenced team of teams.
Although we didn’t originally intend to do so, we’ve embraced biomimicry as a way to rethink processes. We consider Inovateus a living organism that is in continuous growth and improvement mode. As a result, the PODs have evolved. We’ve recently implemented POD 2.0, which strengthens and adapts the POD structure to be more inclusive of other personnel in project execution. In addition to using more concise and easily measurable agendas for each POD’s weekly meetings, we saw the value of adding more input from finance and business development folks on the front end of projects, more participation from purchasing and logistics during primary construction periods, and more robust closeout management between substantial progress and final completion.
Utilizing Consistent Communication
We also use the concept of meeting rhythms at Inovateus, something we picked up from one of our mentors, Verne Harnish, who wrote the book Mastering the Rockefeller Habits. He stresses the importance of maintaining consistent patterns and structure, and of creating a “habit platform” for consistent communications within an organization. In this way, everyone can get in tune with each other. (We also use musical terms and slang in our company, as many of us—myself included—are musicians.)
The meeting rhythms at Inovateus include the weekly POD meetings, daily huddles among the three core internal corporate groups (projects, strategy and capital), weekly 30-minute leadership team meetings and monthly company meetings. The daily huddles each take about 10 minutes and focus on the top five goals for the week and other issues. They offer an opportunity for anyone to ask for help, provide updates on a project and so forth. The huddles take place first thing in the morning so that by 9am everyone has communicated whatever they need to with all the team members who need to know.
We understood that we had to grow efficiently if we were going to meet our goals and fulfill our vision. We realized that not every solar project was right for our company, so we developed another acronymic and biomimicry process we call TREE, which stands for the renewable energy engine. TREE is our mechanism for identifying, vetting and bidding on new projects for our pipeline. After all, project proposals are the seeds for the company’s future, and we want to plant as many healthy seeds as we can while weeding out the unhealthy ones that could hamper our growth.
TREE has five stages or branches, starting with an “RFP machine” concept. From the beginning of project evaluation all the way through the project proposal submission process, we use a “go or no-go” filtering method to continually assess the opportunities at every stage. The first TREE evaluation step identifies potential projects and then adds data inputs in our proprietary software to establish the initial go or no-go status. Then we conduct a preliminary EPC evaluation and go or no-go analysis, followed by a sales step in which senior account executives analyze the vetted projects and initiate conversations with customers. If it’s a go at this point, we take a deeper dive with the customers and complete the preliminary engineering designs and budgets. Finally, if the green light is still shining bright, we put together and deliver our project proposals.
These tactics and strategies may seem simple or perhaps unconventional for your solar business. However, I urge you to examine your own organizational structures and consider adapting these or other creative practices to take your company to the next level.
Cooperative Approach Transforms Energy and Business
By Amanda Bybee, Namasté Solar
Namasté Solar is an employee-owned cooperative (with offices in Colorado, New York and California) that designs, installs and maintains solar electric systems throughout the US for commercial, nonprofit, government and residential customers. Amanda Bybee has worked in the solar industry since 2003, first promoting renewable energy policies at Public Citizen’s Texas office, then with Meridian Solar and now with Namasté Solar. Today, Bybee devotes her energy to strategic planning, corporate governance and incubating new start-up cooperatives.
In 2016, Namasté Solar installed nearly five times the number of megawatts as in 2013. In the same time frame, our revenue tripled and our head count doubled. We have expanded our geographic footprint beyond the borders of Colorado to the Northeastern US and Southern California, and pursued creative solutions to some of the challenges by incubating new cooperative enterprises. Some positive trends have buoyed our progress, including falling equipment prices, state incentive programs, easier access to capital, amazing new team members and the demand generated by the threatened ITC expiration. Other challenging market conditions have hampered us, including increased competition, especially from large national companies; decreasing utility incentives; an unstable legislative and regulatory environment; decreasing average selling prices; and shifting trends in project finance.
Throughout our growth, we have developed strategies around financing, labor, procurement, operational processes and safety.
Financing. We have cultivated partnerships with commercial financiers who have both the capacity and the expertise to make projects run smoothly. We are co-founding a new financial institution, the Clean Energy Federal Credit Union, entirely dedicated to funding clean energy by providing affordable loans to its members on the residential scale for all forms of clean energy and energy efficiency.
Labor. Attracting and retaining the right staff is critical to our success, and we put a lot of effort into this area. When the construction market rebounded in 2013–14, it put a strain on the workforce, and we found it more difficult to hire qualified labor. Competition for good workers drove up wages, especially for licensed electricians, which in turn necessitated an overall recalibration of pay rates throughout the company. In addition, as we have branched out into new states, we have encountered state-specific labor laws that require different compliance. We have developed comprehensive internal training programs, holding in-house NABCEP classes and on-the-job training, to build up our farm team, so to speak. Developing our workforce in-house helps with succession planning for crew leads, project management and other roles.
Procurement. We have found certain benefits in operating at scale: redundancy, resilience, more internal growth opportunities and greater purchasing power. We have sought to further scale our purchasing power via the Amicus Solar Cooperative. Through it, we aggregate our buying power with 40 other member companies in North America and leverage that volume to achieve lower prices on major equipment. Amicus has also evolved into a helpful peer group, where we share best practices, partner on new business endeavors and find support in addressing business challenges.
Operational processes. To scale efficiently, we have focused on refining our internal processes and making them replicable. For example, when we want to add another residential crew, we know exactly what to do, including what vehicle we need, how we will build it out and how to stock it. We know which people are ready to assume leadership of that crew and how long it will take the crew to reach full productivity. The process of adding a crew now follows a well-known formula, which makes planning for expansion a less daunting task.
We look to better processes, improved technology and new providers to make our work flow more easily. On the commercial side of our business, we continue to refine our remote site management and build strong relationships with subcontractors while leveraging relationships with other members of the Amicus Solar Cooperative. On the residential side, we employ a kaizen mentality of constant improvement, making small adjustments to our processes so they are ever easier to accomplish. For example, in Colorado alone, we work in more than 50 different jurisdictions, each with its own requirements and code interpretations. Given that complexity, we want to build more automation into our IT tools to streamline our compliance.
Safety. Safety has become a companywide focal point, both as a function of training so many new employees and as a result of increased scrutiny from OSHA and inspectors. We now have a dedicated safety team that maintains vigilance over our practices, provides more-professional documentation, procures all safety-related equipment and generally deepens the company’s commitment to an abiding culture of safety. Over the coming years, we will continue to seek the right balance between pushing for efficiency and ensuring that our crews can perform work safely.
It bears mentioning that Namasté Solar is an employee-owned cooperative. We believe strongly in the employee ownership model, as it creates a deep sense of caring and investment in the work that we do. It also raises the confidence of our customers that the people responsible for their projects have a true stake in the outcome. We have seen many advantages to this model—and some disadvantages—as we’ve scaled and streamlined through the years.
With regard to decision making, for smaller-scale decisions that fall within a person’s job scope, we generally empower co-owners to make decisions on their own. We expect them to take initiative where needed, think long-term and require minimal management. For instance, commercial project managers have visibility into the big picture of a project (financial, relationships and so on), and can execute change orders with minimal bureaucracy. We have seen throughout the organization that this creates a sense of empowerment and trust that raises morale and increases loyalty, ultimately leading to lower attrition. That said, it sometimes takes us longer to make companywide decisions, because we strive to include as many voices as possible along the way.
We also accept certain trade-offs based on our corporate model. After all, the time we spend in meetings is time we’re not on the roof installing panels. However, we believe that the holistic benefits outweigh the costs. As a result of our discussions, co-owners are more educated about the state of the industry, more engaged in the outcomes of our decisions and generally feel more connected to each other. This leads to deeper job knowledge and general empathy for fellow co-workers. It’s all about balance, and we strive to find the right level of engagement and involvement without sacrificing efficiency and productivity along the way.
At Namasté Solar, we pay as much attention to how we do it as to what we do. We’re here not only to transform energy, but also to transform business. And the more effective we are in one arena, through achieving greater scale and having an impact on more people, the more effective we will be in the other.
Leveraging Technology to Fulfill a Shared Mission
By James Hasselbeck, ReVision Energy
ReVision Energy, founded in 2003, installs more solar in Maine and New Hampshire than any other integrator. The company designs, engineers and installs all of its systems using in-house solar specialists with proper licensure and an equity stake in the company. James Hasselbeck joined ReVision Energy in 2013, and oversees design, project management and commissioning for all construction operations for the Maine and New Hampshire installation teams. Hasselbeck is a NABCEP Certified Installation Professional and a member of the NABCEP PVIP Technical Committee.
In most of the years since its founding, ReVision Energy has seen a year-over-year growth of 20% or more. As all solar veterans understand, achieving a 20% revenue growth in an environment where costs are declining rapidly actually means that everything else—such as project volume and capacity—is scaling even faster. Sustained rapid growth is typically a good problem to have, but it comes with its share of challenges. Along with that growth comes the need to hire exceptional talent for sales, installation and support roles. Growth also forces installation companies to purchase new trucks and equipment and to increase warehouse capacity.
At ReVision, the fact that we’ve grown to operate out of five offices in three states has amplified these scaling challenges. Our business does more than just install rooftop PV. Our basic mission and challenge is to provide comprehensive, carbon-free and cost-effective energy solutions to diverse clients, which include residential, commercial, industrial and community solar customers, as well as those requiring energy storage, electric vehicle charging infrastructures, or the installation of solar-powered heat pumps for heating, cooling or domestic hot water systems.
Shared Mission, Values and Goals
As a Certified B Corp, ReVision Energy has always considered its explicit commitment to multiple groups of stakeholders an asset, not a liability. While many view B Corps or socially responsible business practices as inherently concessionary in terms of financial success, we explicitly reject this view and believe that we succeed because of our values, not in spite of them. As a result, one of the first and most critical components of managing our growth has been to ensure that we never dilute the shared sense of mission and values that binds the company together. Ensuring that we maintain our company culture of respect, legendary customer service and technical excellence while physically spreading across five offices and expanding the size of the team 30% or more in a single year can be a real challenge and certainly doesn’t happen on its own.
Our first strategy to manage this scenario is simple: hire only exceptional people who share our values. By hiring and retaining extraordinary individuals, we have kept employee turnover near zero, which creates a solid institutional memory and foundation upon which to scale and build additional crews.
A second strategy is to deliberately and consistently articulate the company’s shared mission, vision and values. We use every opportunity that we can, internally and externally, to discuss our broader mission and to demonstrate our values. This is the lens through which we approach and discuss everything that we do. Having that language and belief in common creates a strong sense of cohesion for the rapidly expanding group.
Using Technology to Stay in Touch
Beyond taking a very deliberate approach to maintaining a strong and coherent company culture and targeted business goals, we employ several more-concrete tactics to manage the growing business. Many of them relate to leveraging technology to ensure that our team can stay connected and on the same page while running in opposite directions across multiple states.
salesElement. Like many small local solar companies, we started out using a customized Microsoft Excel spreadsheet for pricing projects, and then transferred these prices and key project details into a Microsoft Word template to generate customer proposals. As we achieved some scale, we found that system unsustainable and investigated the proposal generation software platforms specifically targeting the solar installer market. While many had some impressive features, none was capable of pricing and producing proposals for the broad variety of project types that we design and install across a range of different markets. In addition, we were skeptical about giving up design control of the proposal document and ending up with a result that would look more or less like every other solar proposal our clients might see.
The solution we landed on was salesElement (saleselement.com), a cloud-based pricing and proposal generation platform with a specific implementation that we highly customized for our business. The software interfaces with our customer relationship management (CRM) and inventory software to capture customer and component pricing information; this allows the platform to work as both a pricing engine and a proposal generation tool. It is capable of generating highly customized proposals. Though building this custom tool required a substantial financial and labor investment, it has proven to be amazingly flexible and scalable as our business has grown and our product mix has evolved.
Basecamp. Another tool we use to facilitate communications and information sharing is Basecamp (basecamp.com), a cloud-based project management and internal communications platform. We have a number of Basecamp projects geared toward different departments, employee groups and goals. We also utilize Basecamp’s to-do list functionality to maximize productivity for our different teams. For example, we have a centralized system for designing and estimating commercial projects. Using Basecamp, a commercial sales representative can assign a new project to the engineering team. Depending on the desired turnaround time, that design may or may not come from the branch where the sales person is physically located. From our perspective, this system provides the benefits of both centralized and decentralized engineering team approaches. On the one hand, our engineering team can share the workload for maximum productivity; on the other, our branches all benefit from local engineering support, which requires in-person communications.
Egnyte. With so many crews and projects going on, the ability to quickly find relevant information—be it a system proposal or job photograph—is important. For this functionality, we rely on Egnyte Enterprise File Sharing (egnyte.com), which provides access to our server data from anywhere. The platform is easy to use and navigate via smartphone or laptop and is a great way to search for, upload or download information. One benefit of this platform is that it enables our installation crews to immediately upload job photos or permit signatures to the server while on-site; this allows the operations team back in the office to submit utility paperwork the same day we complete an installation, without getting bogged down by the need to physically transfer data.
Company wiki. We use a wiki in Basecamp to outline our internal resources and share process diagrams and flowcharts. A key part of streamlining operations is enabling different people and departments, potentially in different locations, to work together, while ensuring that they accomplish all critical steps with minimal overlap. While we have worked hard to standardize processes and streamline installations, we also needed to maintain a degree of flexibility that would allow for a regionally specific focus. In other words, our back-end systems and processes are critical, but just as important is the ability of those systems and processes to match the unique local demands and requirements of each of our market segments.
A key advantage of using a wiki is that it allows us to embed links in our diagrams. For example, our commercial, institutional and industrial teams consist of representatives from multiple departments. To provide a clear path of responsibilities as our projects progress, we have developed flowcharts that not only outline the step-by-step process, but also provide hyperlinks for some milestones that take users to relevant Basecamp or wiki resources.
Weekly newsletter. Our multiple-location operational structure makes it difficult to maintain group culture and connectivity, as well as share success stories. Therefore, we have instituted shop-specific weekly newsletters with the goal of sharing our many victories, however small they may seem. In addition to letting everyone know what is going on, we strive to use this forum as another opportunity to highlight our mission and values, to inspire conversations about best practices and to recognize team excellence publicly.
Performance metrics. The final, and perhaps most critical, piece of our company initiatives for efficient streamlined growth is identifying and leveraging key performance metrics. ReVision Energy is a data-driven company. All of our system design, installation and business decisions are fact- and science-based. We pull metrics from our CRM database and use these to generate customizable charts and reports. At any given moment, we can review our new project leads for the month; conversion efficiency; sales closing ratios; projects under contract, awaiting design, permit and interconnection approval; procurement; and ultimately scheduling status. Measuring, reviewing and acting upon these and other metrics is crucial, as it can show—in no uncertain terms—where we need to put additional focus.
Chris Anderson / Borrego Solar / Lowell, MA / borregosolar.com
Amanda Bybee / Namasté Solar / Boulder, CO / namastesolar.com
James Hasselbeck / ReVision Energy / Exeter, NH / revisionenergy.com
T.J. Kanczuzewski / Inovateus Solar / South Bend, IN / inovateus.com